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24 September 2014
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Empire of Good Intentions

Tuesday 11 June, BBC TWO

The ideals of Empire may have been noble, but as the Empire of Good Intentions shows, the reality was blood, grief and broken promises.

Britain faced the challenges and consequences of running the biggest Empire the world had ever seen. The founding fathers of the ideal of Imperial duty believed it was the job of Empire to give its subjects what they need for eventual self government - education, law, hospitals, roads and railways. But could Britain deliver both modern western civilisation and save peasants from famine and cholera?

In 1901 the Viceroy of all India, Lord Curzon, planned a memorial to Queen Victoria. By the time the foundation stone to this marble extravaganza was laid, a year after Curzon left India, at least sixteen million Indians had perished in a most terrible famine. Mutiny as well as famine drove a wedge between British and Indian, widened by the British lack of sensitivity to custom and religion. Rebellion was crushed and a new rule for India saw Victoria become Empress, but the whole idea of empire itself changed.

Nearer to home, Ireland was the victim of perhaps the most brutal application of laissez-faireeconomic policy, thousands dying in the great potato famine of the 1840s while grain export of the country continued. While the politicians fought over policy, the soup kitchens and the workhouses overflowed. Over two million Irishmen and women trudged to the ports to find their way to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

Into this world of contrasts came Gladstone and Disraeli. While opinion was polarised on just how Empire should be ruled, Schama says: "It was never so dramatically demonstrated than in the dazzlingly contrasting styles of Disraeli and Gladstone, their views on India and Ireland as conflicting as their personal and political styles." While Disraeli couldn't get enough of Empire, Gladstone championed home rule in Ireland.

In India, in Ireland, and in the industrial slums of Glasgow and Liverpool, the liberal dream had died. In Britain, the Labour party was created. In 1914 subjects from all corners of the empire united for King and Country, dying in the trenches or from the catastrophic influenza epidemic of 1918. What also died was hope that the saga of the liberal empire would have a peaceful last act.

Produced and directed by Jamie Muir

After this episode, viewers can put their questions live to Simon Schama in an online chat at

Also on the site, specially-commissioned articles discuss the British Empire in India in the 19th century, the Irish Potato Famine, Trade and Empire, Home Rule In Ireland, and the relationship between Gladstone and Disraeli.

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